By Richard Drasimaku
OBONGI, NORTHERN UGANDA: Nov 17, 2021
From the far-flung horizon, the setting sun illuminates the skyline, its rays dappling the banks of River Nile where parts of Obongi town once blossomed. But beneath the spectacle lie the ruins of destruction – of shops, rental units, residential apartments, and grass-thatched houses. Combined, they provided shelter and livelihood to more than 500 local households and foreigners converged by trade and the crisis of refugees from South Sudan.
On what previously was the compound of these buildings, fishermen row canoes, looking for fish in the body of the river extended by the floods. Young canoe operators transport people with goods across to Adjumani district. They charge UGX 5000 (1.4 USD) per trip and extra for goods.
The Obongi-Sinyanya ferry is stranded at the pier 418.54 metres from the fence of Obongi Town Primary school, the new bank of River Nile.
Banio, the policeman, keeps guard of the giant hydro-master during the day, occasionally entertained by the huffing of hippopotamus and Congolese music blasting off his radio set, until he is relieved by two colleagues for the night duty.
At the new shoreline, opposite partially submerged Riyadah mosque, Rukia Dawa joins a handful of other female fishmongers under rickety stalls, nearly half a kilometre away from where their former fish market was before the floods. In between the wooden stalls, smoky ovens process the fish, sending a pleasant aroma wafting through the air.
“This is my 20th year of buying and vending fish. We buy fresh fish from the fishermen, smoke it on ovens, and sell to travelers,” said Dawa.
“I used to sell between UGX 200,000 and 500,000 (USD 50 and 139) of fish to customers from Arua, Kampala, and other places. Since the flooding, I only sell to buy food to eat at home. Sometimes you buy fish at sh50,000 and you sell it at sh70,000, customers are few,” she explained of the situation.
How it started
Back in 2019, an event known as positive Indian Ocean Dipole took place, caused by higher-than-usual temperature differences between the two sides of the Indian Ocean.
Dr. Modathir Zaroug of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) explains that the positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) occurs when the westerly winds weaken and easterly winds form, allowing the warm water to shift towards the African continent.
Dr. Zaroug says the implication of this sustained heavy downpour has been displacement of people by floods in the lower area surrounding the lake, disruption of electricity generation from Owen Falls Dam caused by a blockade by floating islands, and further displacement of downstream communities as the Nile carried bigger volumes of water on its more than 6,600 kilometers journey to the Mediterranean Sea.
In Obong, Dawa began witnessing the water volumes rise in late June 2020 without heavy rains in her area.
“Each time you went to the riverbank, you would find the water had extended outwards to another area. This went on for almost one month. Then, there came a heavy rainfall here which caused the river to burst its banks, covering a wider area,” she narrated.
She had five grass-thatched houses; one fell on that first day when the riverbank burst, the second one collapsed after one week.
“I got so scared, I told my children if we don’t leave this place we are going to die,” the widow and mother of six recounted.
Quickly they gathered whatever belongings they had and moved to rent a one-room grass-thatched house at UGX 20,000 (USD 5) a month. Dawa says she thought the water levels would recede and they would go back to their houses but that was never to be.
Instead, all her remaining houses collapsed, and crop gardens were swept away, replaced by water hyacinth. As living conditions deteriorated, Dawa sent two of her children to stay with a relative in Koboko district.
While Dawa grappled with the floods and the unpleasant aftermath, Abdulai Rangaranga, the LC2 chairman of Yakimini parish, Mbale district had his studies interrupted by phone updates about his home and gardens being submerged in Obongi.
On a plot of 60 meters by 60 meters purchased at UGX 15Million (USD 4,100), Rangaranga had constructed a boys’ quarter and a five-roomed house to beam level, all of which are now in the water.
He had to call and calm down his wife and children. “I told her what has happened is like bearing a child and the child dies. Life has to continue after your child has died,” he says.
His family evacuated to a UGX120,000 a month house before relocating to a sustainable UGX 55,000 a month, three grass-thatched houses.
53-year-old Rashid Aliga says the economic toll of the floods has remained immense.
Some businesses including pharmacies and general merchandise groceries had to relocate to Yumbe, Koboko, or Arua City and others closed due to the inevitable dwindle of customers as the ferry remains cut off in the water.
Aliga, a motorcycle repairer says his daily earnings have since fallen from over UGX 30,000 per day to sometimes nil per day.
“The number of bodaboda cyclists has reduced as there are also fewer people who need their services,” he disclosed.
The villages of Bito, Indilinga, Odraju, Odonga, Lionaga, Yakimini, and Go-down were some of the worst-hit.
Houses were washed away, others still surviving more than one year on, a red cross water purification plant was shattered, crop fields submerged and people displaced into classrooms and churches.
They eventually moved to erect temporary structures along the Obongi-Moyo road before resettling.
Habib Khemis Buga, the Obongi district chairman said the district organized a relief package of maize flour, beans, and carpets to help the people affected.
Rangaranga contends that the help from the district covered no more than 100 families in the Obongi town center.
“All that we are asking from the government is to give us iron sheets, we could lay the bricks ourselves,” he said.
This story was first published by West Nile News on 17th November 2021